(Hi, Reddit! Thanks for reading the AMA!)
So, here’s a post. Entirely sorry for the tardiness of this… you’re here to read things of your own free will and I’m here to entertain you. I feel I haven’t held up my end of the bargain.
I just had a bit of an awkward conversation with the cleaning lady in my room. After a brief “hello” to each other, I walked to my bed, hung my cane on the hook, and flopped down. As she was mopping with an acrid mix of bleach and…I can only guess, airline fuel, she asked me a question.
“Are you blind?”she said, her voice in a thick accent with a touch of mid-African bass in it.
“No. Well, yes. Yes and no. Sort of.” I stammered. I felt her staring at me, clearly confused. People tend to think it’s one thing or the other, that it can’t be in between. I gave her the stock answer (left eye blind, right eye bad).
“Oh,” she said.
I thought that was that, smiled, then went digging around in my locker. A minute passes in polite silence.
“My sister went blind,” I heard from behind me. I turned around, and before I could say anything, she continued, “she was seven.”
“Oh, I’m really sorr-”
“She woke up one day and asked our mom to turn on the light, and all the lights were on. She couldn’t see,” she explained. “It was sad, she’s so young.”
“That’s terrible, I’m sorry about that…has she adapted well since then? How old is she now?”
“She had a stroke in…2006. She was in a wheelchair after her eyes went and then the stroke. She was eighteen and she died.”
I had no idea what to say to this, beyond “Oh…”, which really didn’t convey anything.
“She was very clever, you know? She was a nice girl.”
I explained that I was sorry that happened, and she said that’s how life goes. It’s not fair, but it’s something you can’t control.
She cleaned the bathroom and said goodbye, and wheeled her mop and bucket out into the hall.
What do you say to something like that?
I still don’t know. Yet since I’ve got the cane people are just telling me anything and everything.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s flattering, that random strangers – be it the cleaning lady or some old Spanish guy on a train, or a young Romanian girl on the street – will come up to me and start telling me their life stories. I think, maybe, I don’t look like I’d be a dick if you talk to me. Maybe I’m wrong there, but I think I look reasonably approachable.
I also think people tell me their story in an attempt to relate to me. It’s odd, really, but I love it when people share their stories. Because it might help them, or it gives them pause to think about people they know. I don’t know. It’s…hard to explain.
I can’t explain it, really. I don’t think people feel sorry for me – or maybe they do – but they want to tell me their stories. Like “oh, my sister had an accident and now she has to wear glasses all the time, is that what happened to you?” or “my grandmother has macular degeneration, and she’s having a hard time with it.” Things along those lines. And it happens all the time!
And I relish it. I really do. Because I know they’re talking to me because they don’t understand my situation, and they’re trying to learn. They tell me the stories, maybe, to understand the experience of their friends/family who have issues. And not just ones with visual disabilities, either. I’ve been told about people confined to wheelchairs, people with developmental disabilities, and just regular everyday people. Hey, if talking it out with a totally random stranger with a cane helps them, I’m willing to sit there and listen.
I get asked some wonderful questions. I actually like the way I get asked the questions, more than the questions themselves. It’s fun to see people get all awkward and dance around the obvious question of what the hell is up with the cane.
“I’m really sorry to go straight for the obvious question, but why do you need the cane?” I laugh, telling them there’s no need to be sorry, that I enjoy their curiosity. It’s best to ask questions rather than sit back and speculate.
Some people are more blunt, which does get my back up a bit. There’s decorum, people. “What’s wrong with your eyes?” and “bro, what’s the stick for?” Yeah, not a great start. But I do realize that even though it’s not the most polite way to go about things, at least they’re curious. I might be a bit more haughty in my explanation, or give a slightly modified origin story just to mess with them, but I keep all pertinent information truthful.
I suppose some people reading might have a rough idea about my back story, at least in terms of my vision. Here’s my standard line that I’ve honed for quick explanation to people. (Stuff in brackets are like editor’s notes.)
“When I was seven, a friend of mine kicked me in the back of the head, and I lost the vision in my left eye from a retinal detachment. (At this point people are shocked) It’s ok, he was trying to kick someone else, and I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t blame him. (At this point, many (usually) Americans ask if we sued the kid and his family. No. We didn’t. Why? Poor bastard has to deal with what happened, and I can’t imagine that feeling. That’s bad enough.)”
(They generally feel bad for me at this point, telling me they’re sorry. I try lightening the tone.)
“It’s alright. I mean, the only drawback was t hat I couldn’t play most sports – especially with things in the air – and I can’t see 3D movies. I saw Avatar and only had t he dialogue to go on. That is a shitty movie when you can’t see it.” (Sometimes they argue it’s a good movie – it’s not – but I extend an olive branch by saying it was neat on Blu-Ray in 2D.)
“So, I went through life relatively normally. I drove, worked, did what everyone else does, just with poor depth perception. But in 2008 I was working at a (depending on where they’re from, I say “record store” or “HMV”) and I noticed my vision changing. You know in the James Bond movies how he walks on screen, turns, fires, and blood comes down from the top of the screen? Basically that happened, just…you know, no one shot me.”
(Now they ask why it happened.)
“No idea.” I say. “Wish I knew. I’ve got theories, but I don’t dwell on them because they’re unprovable. The point is what happened, happened.”
(“Wow, what happened then?” they ask. I give a roughly edited run-through of the actual events, but it’s all truthful.)
“I went to the hospital (“Free health care!” I thumbs-up when I’m telling Americans), and was told my retina was detaching right then and there. I went in for immediate surgery, and over the next three years I had another two to patch/repair everything. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than having no vision.”
(“So, what can you see?” they usually ask now.)
“I have trouble with faces and distant text. And text up close, come to that. I have to be this close…” (I hold my iPhone to my face to show how close I have to be to read the date) “…but I can zoom and make it easier for me.” (I explain, if they’re interested, how I use the iPhone as an accessibility tool, more on that in another post).
(“Wow, that’s [brave/amazing/insane/great/etc.],” they say. I don’t know how to take compliments. Never have. I still don’t know how I feel about doing this trip, so I usually reply with my standard joke that’s truthful).
“There’s a fine line between bravery and stupidity, and I’m not sure which side I’m on yet.”
So that’s usually the discourse. Generally there’ll be bits with “Oh, you’re travelling alone? Wow!” and questions are asked about difficulties I’ve encountered. I’ll explain those in another post, since I could fill a book with that…which really is the master plan.
So, to summarize my “origin story”
TL;dr: Lost vision in left eye in a playground accident when I was seven. At 24 I was working and the right eye started going, but after three surgeries I have enough vision to get around but not drive or watch movies in a theatre.
I’ll be posting a cleaned-up transcript from my Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) soon…once I get some decent Wi-Fi back.
Cheers, and thanks again for reading.